A North Laurel woman who said she was suffering from battered spousesyndrome when she shot and killed her common-law husband last July pleaded guilty yesterday in Howard County Circuit Court to second-degree murder.
County prosecutors and lawyers for the woman, Beverly Renee Seward, 40, have asked Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. to sentenceher to no more than 12 years in jail. A sentencing hearing is set for Sept. 17.
Second-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
Seward was charged with first-degree murder, manslaughter anduse of a handgun in commission of a felony. The latter two charges were dropped in the plea agreement. Her trial was scheduled for May 29.
As part of her defense, Seward had planned to present expert testimony on battered spouse syndrome to help explain her state of mind when she shot 37-year-old Archie Lorenzo White last July 29 at the town house they shared.
Battered spouse syndrome is developed by some women who, feeling trapped in abusive relationships, respond in desperation with violence toward their mates, mental health experts say.
Seward's public defender, Richard Bernhardt, said experts in the field may testify at her sentencing hearing to support the contentionthat she suffered from battered spouse syndrome. To challenge Seward's claim, the state plans to present testimony from a psychiatrist who examined Seward for the prosecution.
Prosecutor Kate O'Donnell disputed Seward's claim that she suffered from battered spouse syndrome. She said that interviews with relatives and friends of the coupleand Seward's statement to police do not support that.
Lawyers would not comment on the decision to enter into a plea agreement or on the upcoming sentencing, citing a gag order barring all parties in thecase from discussing any aspect of it with the public or news media. Sybert issued the order at the state's request, following a Jan. 27article in The Howard County Sun that featured an interview with Seward.
In the article, Seward said that White beat her with increasing brutality over 10 years and that she shot him in self-defense.
The couple had lived together in the North Laurel town house for about three years. Seward had worked as an emergency medical technician, and White worked as a computer operator.
Battered spouse syndrome has became a controversial issue in recent years. Supporters say thatmost battered women who kill do it during a lull between beatings out of fear for their lives due to a history of abuse. But critics question its credibility in the scientific community and say the theory may turn out to be a fad.
The General Assembly enacted legislation April 5 allowing court testimony about the syndrome. Previously, a defendant could not cite a pattern of violence as a defense; a defendant had to show that his or her life was in immediate danger to plead self-defense.
The lawmakers' action followed Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision in February to grant clemency to eight women, all of whom he said had been victims of abuse by their mates. Seven of them were serving prison terms for killing their mates.
In the first Maryland trial to feature expert testimony on battered spouse syndrome, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury found an Annapolis womanguilty of manslaughter in the death of her boyfriend.
In a statement read to the court, O'Donnell said that Seward telephoned police about 10:17 p.m. July 29 and said her "husband" had been shot. On arriving at the couple's town house on North Laurel Road, police found White dead on the dining room floor with a single gunshot wound to the heart. A .22-caliber revolver lay on the dining room table.
Later,at police headquarters, O'Donnell said Seward "hysterically admitted" to police that she shot White.
In an interview with police two hours after the shooting, Seward said she bought the gun more than a year ago because White occasionally grabbed her from bed in the middle of the night and beat her.
Seward also told police of the deterioration of her relationship with White. She told police that White attacked her about 8 that evening, pushing her into a closet, O'Donnellsaid. Just before the shooting, the two fought again.
"He startedpushing me around again, not really hitting me this time, but pushing me around," O'Donnell read from Seward's statement to police. "I got angry and tired of him pushing me around, so I went and got the gun."
Seward went upstairs and took the gun from a file cabinet. Meanwhile, White was preparing to move out, O'Donnell said. Police found a trash bag filled with White's clothes at the town house door.
A week before the shooting Seward had confided to Deborah Lee, a cousinof White's, that she had an urge to kill White with a knife, O'Donnell said.
White had altered his insurance policy in June 1990, naming his mother as a co-beneficiary, O'Donnell said. Until that time, Seward had been the sole beneficiary.
In the Howard County Sun article, Seward spoke of two violent incidents with White on the night ofJuly 29, in which he choked her and threw her against a closet. She said she got her gun out of the file cabinet so White would leave heralone.
Seward said she doesn't remember pulling the trigger.
"I didn't try to kill him," said Seward in a statement to the police. "I just didn't want him to attack me again."